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Learning at its Best, School Stories

Nurturing Wonder and Awe in our Schools: A Placeholder

I wanted to check-in and let you know that I’m still around and plan on posting again in the next couple of days. Although I’ve been devoting most of my energy to a few of the other projects in which I’m involved (!), I wanted to let you know that I miss the unique energy that I get (and hopefully return) to the Coop. We’re coming up to Spring Break and, other than our first trip as a family to a waterpark hotel (!!), I should have much more space to gather my thoughts here.

In the meantime, I would love you to have a look at some of the thinking around the mental and emotional health of our schools over at my personal blog space, Teaching Out Loud. The series is called Every Week Is School Spirit Week and I’ve reproduced one of the five entries here. Your feedback is always different than any other that I receive!

I walked into a grade one class yesterday with two things in my hand: a blank piece of 8 1/2 x 11 photocopy paper and a crayon. “Today we’re going to explore the wonderful world of texture,” I began. “Let’s make a list of words to describe how certain things feel when we touch them.” We then proceeded to describe how the carpet felt, how sweaters and shirts felt (their own). We decided the floor felt hard and smooth, the walls felt bumpy, while a piece of ceiling tile felt scratchy. Everyone wanted to have their particular word heard and there was a moderate level of interest in touching and describing.

But then I pulled out my blank piece of paper and my crayon. I put my finger to my lips to signal that I needed them to be very quiet and I then moved slowly over to one of the bare walls in the classroom. Without saying a word I proceeded to place the blank paper against the wall, gently rubbing the crayon back and forth over an area of the paper. As the texture of the wall started to appear on the paper, there was a sudden gasp, a few seconds of absolute silence, followed by a resounding chorus of “woah…that’s awesome”. Within a few seconds the excitement level in the classroom built. “Do it again, Mr. Hurley!” “Let me try that!” “Try another colour!” “Let’s try rubbing it on the side of that basket!”

A few moments later I let the grade ones loose in the halls of the school with paper and crayons of their own in a search for more interesting textures. It was a scene of exuberant chaos, grounded in a sense of “woah!”

You know, I think that we’ve become so intent on making sure that our students have the skills and knowledge that they will need for the future that we often overlook what can happen when schools commit to nurturing a real sense of wonder and awe in the present moment.

In one of the Four Quartets, poet T.S. Eliot observes, “We’ve had the experience but missed the meaning.” I’ve long thought that the reverse can be said about the experience of schooling. Often we provide our students with the meaning, but neglect to provide for the “woah” experiences that could lead to a better appreciation and deeper understanding of that meaning. In a sense, our children may well end up saying, “We’ve had the meaning, but missed the experience!”

When was the last time your students were moved to tears by the beauty, awe or immensity of a phenomenon? When was the last time you heard them exclaim, “That is so cool!” Just as important, when was the last time that you, as teacher, had shivers run up and down your spine because of the reaction of your students. These are prime moments in the life an educational community. When learning happens–I mean really happens–I suspect that it is often ignited by a sense of wonder and awe.

To borrow from John Seely Brown, I believe that schools are places where we push a great deal at our students (and our teachers). But, it’s really when learners are pulled into the experience (and we can’t always plan for and control this) that the table is set for powerful meaning-making.

So, how do we create school-based environments that allow for more “woah” moments. I have a few ideas, and you likely have a few more.

  1. Elevate the arts to a place of prominence in our school communities. Experiences of awe are most always embodied experiences. They happen through our senses and the arts are the best way into the sensual world. We need to allow our children  to experience the world in a number of different ways, and arts education and experiences open doors to those experiences.
  2. As adults, we need to nurture a sense of wonder and awe in our own lives. We can’t give others what we don’t have ourselves, and I believe that this includes dispositions that lead to personal experiences of “woah”;
  3. Opt for metaphors of teaching that more closely resemble poetry rather than science (though there is immense beauty in both), metaphors that imagine teachers more as artistists than practitioners;
  4. As educators, we need to take time to remember that, depending on the age of our students, much of what they are experiencing is new–they are meeting it for the first time. Adopting an attitude of seeing the world through new eyes will allow us to rekindle that sense of wonder in our own lives;
  5. Get lost! Discover things that are new. Get out of the school and take a walk around the neighbourhood. Try to see things that you’ve never seen before. Try to see things with which you are familiar from different perspectives.

These last couple of points allow me to finish with another T.S. Eliot thought:

We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive we started
And know the place for the very first time.

T.S. Eliot, The Little Gidding, Four Quartets

And in our busy, disembodied world, that’s a pretty awesome thought! And when we’re talking about school spirit, what could be more awe-inspiring than inspiring awe?

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


One thought on “Nurturing Wonder and Awe in our Schools: A Placeholder

  1. Well-put. What about working towards interdisciplinary sets of metaphors rather than this type or that one?

    And huzzah for the arts. This year I’ve found little else that so captivates a struggling learner with learning as painting.

    More thoughts as they arrive and as I await your next post –

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 11, 2011, 6:40 am

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